Ten Annoying Habits of First Levels

Dear Reader,

The beginning of a game is a tricky period. The developers need to impart a lot of wisdom to you, you’re trying to get your bearings, it’s like a first date in many ways. As a result, some foibles inevitably crop up, and I thought I’d detail some of my least favorite below.

Hit the jump, Dear Reader. As always. Hit it hard.

10. “Checking Your Visor.” First person shooters love this one. You’re given some targets on the screen, and told to look at them. Then they pat you on the head when you pull it off. The annoying thing isn’t so much that they do this, but that they actually go to the trouble to justify it within the context of the game as some kind of calibration. Then two seconds later, when they want me to fire my gun, the same NPC will obliviously demand that I “press R1.” What the hell is the point of your little suspension of disbelief song and dance if you’re just going to abandon it when it’s inconvenient? All or nothing, guys.

9. Loading Screen Tips. Putting helpful gameplay tips on a loading screen makes sense in theory. The problem is, the “advice” they hand out is so numb-skull obvious that it’s not worth saying, and then they repeat the same two tidbits for the rest of the game. There you are, waiting to fight the final boss, and the screen reminds you that “C” is crouch. One time, “F.E.A.R.” sagely counseled me that if I was dying repeatedly, I should try a different tactic. Whoever wrote that piece of advice down wasted the oxygen they were breathing while they did it.

I hold RPGs particularly accountable here, because most of them are complex enough that they could, in theory, dispense real wisdom during these moments. They never do. And sometimes, the “advice” seems to border on finger-wagging from the developers. “Make sure to talk to your party!” is not a pro tip, guys. It’s backseat gaming.

8. Refresher Courses. Back to first person shooters, I really wish thy wouldn’t bother trying to justify the training sections inside the plot. They always go for some dopey excuse, like “Boss just wants to make sure you’re still in shape.” First of all, screw the boss, I demand proof that he’s in shape, lazy old coot. Second, how is checking my ability to pull a trigger—something a six year old could do—going to demonstrate that? Aren’t I a hardened space marine, genetically engineered to kill everything in sight? Did they show the SEALs how a gun works before they went off to kill Osama? You’re trying to pull me into the story, and actually you’re knocking me out of it. Just hit me with a text box that says “Right Trigger is Fire.”

7. Power Up, Power Down. This one is rare, but I hate it with a unique passion. Sometimes, some idiot who should be killed thinks it would be fun to give me a walking god in the opening level, let me get used to the feeling, then strip all my powers from me right afterwards. For the rest of the game, the moves I had committed to memory continue twitching in my reflexes like phantom limbs, making each encounter less fun and more frustrating as I struggle to remember what the hell I can actually do. “Prototype,” I’m looking right at you, buddy. Not okay. If your goal was to capture all the fun and satisfaction of halting urination mid-stream, you succeeded wildly. Otherwise, you’ve sabotaged your entire product.

6. Artificial Difficulty. Okay this is nitpicky, but sometimes a game will decide to swing for the fences in the opening level, but the demands of difficulty scaling won’t allow them to accurately represent their Herculean efforts in gameplay. In other words, things feel too easy. You steal a car, drive it up Kilimanjaro firing two shotguns out of either window at an oncoming alien invasion…all by pressing the X button. Later on, when you die fifty times trying to beat up one thug in a bar, the whole game starts to feel ridiculous.

5. The Controller Screen. Oh, if I had a nickel. You ever see that diagram of the controller with the one million different control inputs scattered around it? Has anyone ever profited from seeing this insane wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics? Sometimes every button does like five things. Never mind that learning is more difficult out of context, there’s just too much to look at to be able to absorb any of it. The bumper buttons are the worst, you never have time to check what those damned things do. Then, once the game loads, you know you shouldn’t press them without being sure of what they do, but you try anyway. Ka-boom, the game murders your dog. In real life.

4. R3. In the last few years, control sticks have become buttons unto themselves. It’s an unorthodox idea but it works surprisingly well, especially as a sprint button. And yet, as if developers are in some kind of denial, tutorials very rarely just say “press down on the control stick.” Sometimes they vaguely indiciate the control stick, but refuse to elaborate. PS3 cutely labels it “L3″ and “R3,” which is confusing because the other L/R buttons are on the shoulder, progressing outwards from the center. I’ve been playing games for a long time now, and I still have to think a second before I realize the game wants me to press on the control stick. Let’s call a spade a spade, hmm?

3. Showtime. “Killzone 3″ begins with a series of bangin’ car chases and shoot-outs. The problem is, you’re not participating in most of them. The game goes to the trouble to insert you into the world and let you move around, but as soon as anything cool starts taking place, you’re Raptured right out of there to watch from the sky. “Easy there, big fella,” they seem to say. I’m all for a cinematic flourish to get us going, but once I’m in the game, I’d really rather not trigger another cut scene every fifteen seconds.

2. MS Word Paper Clip Syndrome. Some games have empty nest anxiety. You’re just—sniffle—you’re just growing up so fast, and they can’t let go of you. So even though you’re twenty hours into the game, you’re still getting text boxes explaining how to do the most asinine things over and over again. RPGs, again the blame is extra-strong here. I sympathize with your concern, I’m juggling a lot of information, but seriously, I can handle it. Let go of my arm and stop crying.

1. You Missed A Spot. By far the most egregious offense here. Ever put ten hard hours into a game before you stumble onto an essential gameplay mechanic that was never explained? Fast transit systems are particularly notorious for this. I didn’t find out you could make camp in “Red Dead Redemption” until over half way through. The finer points of “Borderlands’” rapid travel are inexplicably never detailed, and stumbling into them creates a wave of euphoria, followed by indignation and wrath. Little stuff like this that cuts down on wasted time, yet isn’t absolutely essential to gameplay, is often overlooked in the flow of the game. And every time it happens, I die a little inside.

–AA

a tramp vomiting

  • Mark Ross

    While I agree with many of your points, let’s not forget that games do need SOME way of bringing the unwashed noobs into a state of understanding. These methods mentioned above are just the easy way out. http://www.significant-bits.com/super-mario-bros-3-level-design-lessons points out some great ways of intuitively communicating gameplay tutorials that more games need to adopt.

  • Anonymous

    Shin Megami Tensei has the best early level stuff. They give you a level 40 something demon that gets sucked into the terminal after the first boss.

    I miss my poor doggy. :(

    Oh and demons kill your mom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1063436829 Sean Christy

    good point